Tonight—Thursday, April 18, 2019—the season 2 finale of “Star Trek: Discovery” (STD… I know🙄) premieres on CBS All Access. Of course, even though I love the series for some reasons and I’m really irritated by it for others, my wife and I will be watching.
In honor of this event, I would like to share with the readers of SLC Nerd a treatise that I wrote earlier this year.—Joe Puente
n.b. As I’ve stated elsewhere—regarding various topics from socio-economic and political issues to historical events and popular culture—I try my best to be mindful that I’m not the only person to have these thoughts and opinions. However, I hope that my contribution resonates in a way that’s unique when compared to what others have written or will write on the topic. That being said…
I love Star Trek… but I also like consistency.
I want to assure the reader that I’m not one of those gatekeeper fanatics, out to take the fun out of a franchise for everyone just because they’re not satisfied with someone else’s creative choices. If it’s got “Star Trek” in the title—and even if it doesn’t—I’m going to watch it and appreciate it for what it is but continuity problems can affect one’s ability to fully enjoy the experience.
As a filmmaker, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for unavoidable circumstances that could alter a film or subsequent installment like the need to recast a character. Kirstie Alley will always be the best Saavik to me simply because she defined the character. Robin Curtis was okay but not as memorable. A lot of people feel that Don Cheadle was a considerable improvement over Terrence Howard for the part of James Rhodes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And the CGI Yoda (while not loved by everyone in the Star Wars prequels) certainly was a better rendition than the redesigned puppet they used for The Phantom Menace (inspiring Lucasfilm to swap them out in time for the Blu-ray release of the “complete” saga).
Sometimes, a change in casting doesn’t matter as much—if at all—if a lot of prosthetics are required for the role. The part of Mason Verger was portrayed by two different actors in the Hannibal TV series but the character was unrecognizably disfigured at the end of one season so casual viewers probably didn’t notice that the entire actor and not just his face was replaced for the next part of the story.
The use of props can be a little more tricky. I can’t be the only one who noticed the significant differences in the design—and lettering style—of Wolverine’s dog tag over the years in the X-Men movies.
|As a Navy veteran, I can attest that military service members
are indeed issued two identification dog-tags but they’re identical.
When it comes to production design, Star Trek has always been creative in coming up with ways to explain (off camera, anyway) noticeable changes in sets, props and uniforms, and has also made a sincere effort to acknowledge that the changes did not go unnoticed “in-universe”—to the point where intermediate designs for uniforms and even starships have been created to suggest how they evolved over the decades. For example, the radical change in the design and layout of the bridge from one film to the next is explained by simply stating—granted, never on camera (to date)—that the section of the ship that serves as the bridge (the uppermost deck or “Deck 1” on the saucer section) is a modular component that can be replaced when a major systems upgrade was needed.
Granted, it was a little harder to swallow the radical change in design between the Enterprise of The Original TV Series and the one seen in The Motion Picture as an extensive “refit” but as fans, we could see that the newer design was a lot cooler so we just accepted it.
“Well, apart from the new saucer section, engineering hull, nacelles, pylons, outer plating, internal structure, decks, bulkheads, hatches, airlocks, control panels, monitors, furniture, lighting, interior decorating and everything else down to the font in which the name and registry is painted, it’s totally the same ship. Says so right there: ‘U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701.’ Can’t argue with that.”—most Star Trek fans
Fans can be very forgiving. One could also appreciate the dilemma in philosophical terms. The question of whether the Enterprise of The Original Series and the Enterprise of the first three films are the same vessel is an excellent interpretation of the “Ship of Theseus” thought experiment which postulates that if a ship has all of its components completely replaced over time—to the point that none of the original components remain—is it still the same ship?
Of course, there are times when significant design changes just happen and everyone simply pretends that no one notices. Like the bridge of the Klingon Bird of Prey in Star Trek III:
Compared to the bridge of the “same” ship in Star Trek IV:
But, who really cares about the bridge when the bigger question to consider is where the hell does one squeeze two full grown humpback whales into that ship?
Again, we suspend our disbelief for the benefit of being entertained.
I consider myself a pretty forgiving audience when it comes to movie and TV franchises. They’re not supposed to be high art. They’re spectacle, pure entertainment. But when so much time and effort has gone into building a world (or galaxy) over several decades and then one decides to explore that world’s past, inconsistencies between what’s been said about the past and what’s being presented as the past not only raises questions for detail-oriented fans, it can pull us completely out of the experience of enjoying the film or TV show, shattering the suspension of disbelief that we rely on to enjoy what we’re watching. We go from, “I’m in my favorite fictional universe again,” to “What’s this nonsense pretending to be something that I love?”
When the powers-that-were first decided to create a new Star Trek TV show that took place before the events of the original series, fans were intrigued. When they learned that it would be titled “Enterprise” fans were more than a little confused. How could it be Star Trek if the words “Star Trek” are not in the title—an issue that was later remedied. However, the fact that the show was named for the ship that it would feature also raised some legitimate questions. Would they depict the voyages of Christopher Pike, or the captain that preceded him, Robert April, on the original USS Enterprise NCC-1701?
No. Instead, we were given a new “original” starship Enterprise “NX-01”—no “USS” prefix because it predates the United Federation of Planets.
But why had we never heard of this Enterprise before the “Prequel” series premiered? Seriously, if it was so important in the history of space travel—the “first warp 5 capable starship”—shouldn’t it have been included among the images and replicas depicting the lineage of every ship called “Enterprise”? It’s not like there’s wasn’t enough room to display another ship.
|There’s probably room for the other two aircraft carriers as well|
There was even an Enterprise lineage display in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Hey, look, apparently, there was a starship called Enterprise before The Original Series.
And it’s even been seen in paintings as set dressing for the prequel series (not to mention a desk model in Star Trek: Into Darkness). Of course, there was nothing to directly identify it. My point is that the producers were fully aware of these disparities when they were developing the new show.
|Even the NX-01 had its own Enterprise lineage display|
|I suppose they could have taken a page from Lucasfilm and
released a “Special Edition” of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
When Enterprise premiered, I watched it because it was the only Star Trek series that was on that was actually making new episodes and I enjoyed it for what it was—same goes for Discovery. But there were a lot of details in the show that confused me even beyond the titular vessel that just didn’t gel with what had been said about this period of time in the previously depicted “future” of the franchise.
I thought these 22nd-century starships would be packing nukes since the show took place prior to the war with the Romulans. And what’s with all the flat-screen displays?
Yes, I’m aware of all the new tools at the production’s disposal that didn’t even exist when the original series first aired, to say nothing of how much technology would advance beyond what could be imagined in the 1960s but that’s not really my point. Some throwaway dialogue about how Captain Pike still insists on communicating through “old-fashioned screens” instead of with snazzy—albeit glitchy—holograms leaves me wanting. Apparently, fans are supposed to accept that holographic communication just fell out of favor until someone decided to “bring it back” over a century later during the period covered on Deep Space Nine. The inconsistencies don’t stop there, of course—promises to “address/resolve” discrepancies notwithstanding:
The reader will note that the video above is part 1 of 47 so I really don’t need to go on…
Except that I will because of another major discrepancy that’s difficult to ignore.
The appearance of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701 on Star Trek: Discovery, starting with the episode “Will You Take My Hand?” which looks more like the “refit” Enterprise of The Motion Picture than the simpler design we all remember from The Original Series, the time-travel episode of DS9, “Trials and Tribble-ations.”
|The USS Enterprise NCC-1701
as seen in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
According to Designer John Eaves (who’s been working on Star Trek since Generations):
“…the task of the Enterprise making an appearance… started with the guideline that the Enterprise for Discovery had to be 25% different, otherwise production would have most likely been able to use the original design from the 60’s. But that couldn’t happen so we took Jefferies’ original concepts and with great care tried to be as faithful as possible. We had the advantage of a ten-year gap in trek history to retro the ship a bit with elements that could be removed and replaced somewhere in the time frame of discovery and the original series…” (emphasis added)—ScreenCrush
|So, the 2250s, 2260s, and 2270s…|
One problem that I have with this explanation is based on more than aesthetics. I’m not an engineer but I can’t be alone in thinking that the angled nacelle struts of the Enterprise—as seen in Discovery and The Motion Picture—look much more structurally sound than the much simpler ones from The Original Series. Eave’s explanation could be interpreted to mean that the holographic communications system wasn’t the only thing that gets downgraded on the Enterprise.
The producers behind Discovery insist that it takes place in what’s come to be called the “Prime” timeline—to differentiate it with the “Kelvin” timeline, created to give J.J. Abrams’—and future contributors—the creative leeway needed to breath new life into the franchise starting with the 2009 feature film Star Trek.
As if all the existential angst and online postulating about just how many quantum variations of Star Trek there could be, it turns out that the use of alternate timelines is a lot more complicated* than the producers are letting on.
In the same ScreenCrush article referenced above, John Eaves is also quoted as saying:
“After Enterprise, properties of Star Trek ownership changed hands and was divided, so what was able to cross TV shows up to that point changed and a lot of the crossover was no longer allowed. That is why when JJ [Abrams]’s movie came along everything had to be different. The alternate universe concept was what really made that movie happen in a way as to not cross the new boundaries and give Trek a new footing to continue.”
*An abbreviated version of the video linked above from the YouTube channel Midnight’s Edge, covers the main bullet points of all the legal hoops that must be jumped through in order to make new Star Trek content in any form.
I remember reading Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey series when I was a kid and rereading them over the years. For those who are only familiar with the two films based on the first two books in the series, it’s interesting to note that in the first novel—which was written concurrently with the screenplay for for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey—the “United States Spacecraft [USS] Discovery One” traveled to one of Saturn’s moons, Iapetus. In the film, it only made it to Jupiter. When Clarke wrote the novel 2010: Odyssey Two, it was a continuation of the story as depicted in the film 2001 and not the novel in a much more friendly and collaborative effort with the Soviets than what was depicted in Peter Hyams’ film adaptation, 2010: The Year We Make Contact.
Clarke acknowledged the discrepancies not only between those first two novels but also subsequent novels in the series when he wrote in the opening pages of the third book in the series, 2061: Odyssey Three:
“Just as 2010: Odyssey Two was not a direct sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, so this book is not a linear sequel to 2010. They must all be considered as variations on the same theme, involving many of the same characters and situations, but not necessarily happening in the same universe. Developments since 1964 make total consistency impossible, as the later stories incorporate discoveries and events that had not even taken place when the earlier books were written.”
I try to remember Arthur C. Clarke’s words whenever I see an inconsistency or continuity “error” in a series—regardless of whether it’s a TV show, movie franchise or novel.
Upon witnessing a discrepancy in a popular sequel:
“Hey, that’s different from the others.”
Upon remembering Clarke’s thinking:
“I guess this sequel takes place in a slightly different universe.”
When Lucasfilm decided to make prequel movies, TV shows and anthology films related to Star Wars, they had the luxury of a limited body of existing filmed and animated stories. There wasn’t much that was said or referenced about “the past” that couldn’t be explained or “retconned” without doing too much in the way of mental gymnastics or just trying to see things “from a certain point of view.” Rebranding the Expanded Universe—which was never very consistent to begin with—as “Legends” and officially declaring it no longer “canon” was a clever way to allow new participants in the franchise to exercise more creative freedom. Just as the declaration that Abrams’ Star Trek occurs in an “alternate reality” gave those filmmakers a clean slate for telling their stories.
As I have come to understand it, with few exceptions, the storylines of officially licensed Star Trek novels and comics prior to those associated with the 2009 film have had little or no impact on the TV shows or movies from The Original Series right through Enterprise (or from Enterprise through Nemesis if you want to look at it chronologically, in-universe). There were plenty of episodes dealing with time travel, alternate realities including the “Mirror Universe,” and parallel dimensions. When it came to traveling through time, especially into the past, the principal characters were depicted as being very conscientious that their presence in the past did nothing to alter the course of history. Oftentimes, they traveled to the distant past or even the “present”—as far as when the various series were airing or the films were being produced. Spock always covered his ears, they tried their best to blend in and if they had to reveal themselves to anyone, it was done so discreetly and without revealing too much about the future. Obviously, creative liberties were taken for the sake of advancing the plot.
One of Deep Space Nine’s trips into the past—referenced above—poked fun at one of the major inconsistencies of the franchise without offering an in-universe explanation for it to hilarious effect.
Voyager’s time travels—through no fault of the crew—had apparently played a major role in the technological underpinnings of the entire Star Trek universe. Time travel was also a key plot point in its series finale.
But there is one particular time travel incident in Star Trek where it appeared that all the rules for non-interference when going back in time were just thrown out the airlock:
I’m talking about Star Trek: First Contact.
Not only did the crew of the Enterprise give up—pretty early in the story—on any attempt to fit into the time period, but they also used a telescope to show the Enterprise in orbit and they spilled the beans to the locals about a lot of key events that were going to happen in the future.
To make things worse, they used 24th-century technology to make repairs to Zefram Cochrane’s damaged warp ship and Commander Riker and Geordi La Forge even flew on the first warp flight with Cochrane, telling him when to go to warp and for how long.
|Two of these people were not supposed to be in this cockpit|
Alfre Woodard‘s character, Lilly, was supposed to fly with Cochrane but she had to be transported to the Enterprise for medical attention—at least she still got to go into space. I can’t help but wonder who else was supposed to be in that cockpit originally. If Buzz Aldrin “desperately” wanted to be the first person to walk on the moon for Apollo 11, imagine how he’d feel if some time traveling astronauts—who have probably already been to the moon on vacation or maybe a layover on their way to Mars—showed up and kicked him and Michael Collins off of the Saturn V rocket to make sure they didn’t screw up their own mission… Oh, but Armstrong still has to go because he’s the only one anybody remembers in the 24th century—Despite Buzz’s efforts to keep reminding people that, technically, he and Neil landed on the moon at the exact same time.
Of course, Cochrane—et al—flies in space, the Vulcans detect the warp signature as they were supposed to, the Enterprise crew defeats the Borg in orbit, Data gives up half his face for a blowjob (that plot element’s really more inferred than explicitly presented in the narrative), they travel back to the future and all is well… or is it?
There have been several references to Star Trek: First Contact in Star Trek: Enterprise, including allusions to plot elements from the movie attributed to Cochrane himself and the appearance of 24th-century Borg survivors on Earth. Considering how much of Star Trek’s “past”—as depicted in the prequels—differs from what was described in every other iteration of the franchise, I have my own “fan theory” to explain it—and I can’t possibly be the only person to think of this:
The prequel series (Enterprise, Discovery and any subsequent spinoffs, including the announced series featuring Jean-Luc Picard) and the movies, Star Trek: Insurrection and Nemesis, take place in their own alternate reality. A separate timeline that was created as a result of the events in Star Trek: First Contact. This new alternate reality could be considered the “Prime” timeline as also seen in the 2009 Star Trek feature, narratively—and legally—distinct from the “Canon” timeline which consists of all previously produced Star Trek television shows from The Original Series through Voyager and all the movies from The Motion Picture through First Contact.
It’s my opinion, that the powers that be at CBS should quit trying to explain away the inconsistencies and contradictions of all the new stories in an attempt to convince the fans that it all fits into Star Trek “Canon” and simply just publicly embrace that they take place in a completely different “Prime” timeline. There is an in-universe precedent for this explanation that predates the 2009 Star Trek film by 16 years in the form of the Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode, “Parallels,” which established that:
“…all possibilities that can happen or could happen do happen in alternate quantum realities.”—An alternate Data from an unspecified parallel universe.
CBS should just own it and quit trying to make everything produced since Enterprise sync up with the “Canon” timeline because they’ll never be able to do it to anyone’s satisfaction anyway—Enterprise couldn’t even do it and that was before the CBS/Viacom divorce.
As one who has an appreciation for visual aids, I’ve taken the liberty of assembling a chart to illustrate this theory. It has been argued that even the “Mirror Universe” depicted on Discovery can be considered its own distinct universe—earlier versions of the chart actually showed that as well—but things are already complicated enough.
The rest is (an alternate) history!
|Click here for a higher resolution image.|
Digital Illustration created by the author, incorporating preexisting imagery used in accordance with the Fair Use exemption under U.S. Copyright Law.
(Latest revision: April 20, 2019)